We know Major Tom's a junkie...
God, I hate the eighties.
Watching human development, we see the shell shock of the 1940s bubble over to the 1950s, then shatter in an explosion of inventiveness and revolution in the 1960s. The 1970s deal with the fall out as the fact no one can change the world leads the acceptance of compromise, which in turn leads to cynacism. And then there's the 1980s. As the easily-forgotten sitcom Shock Jock shows, it was the decade to hate. The clothes may have been no more ridiculous than any other period of history, or the hair, or the music, but the sheer greed of it all. The selfishness. The rise of yuppiedom as people threw aside every belief they had and made life consist of looking after number one. Where share prices overtook conversation. It was all about money, dinner parties, and lying about how everyone looked great in peach. You want proof of a god? The stock market crash wiping out half the yuppie population overnight, that is what we call divine retribution, and the 1990s saw European society as a whole hit a kind of stability which has, in turn, become increasingly introverted and technology focussed.
I won't continue this rant like some nutter, bemoaning what attitudes and symptoms caused Doctor Who to go off the rails or why the world should have ended, Threads-style in 1979. The fact is, I hated the 1980s, even when I was living in them - all five years there - and 1990 couldn't come bloody soon enough. Everything beyond the TV shows and pop music sucked, and sometimes even them. When Father's Day showed the 1980s as the grey, miserable and dispiriting world Rose was shocked by, I was relieved they didn't try any of the self-romanticism of The Empty Child or The Idiot's Lantern.
So, Life on Mars set in the 1980s did not appeal to me. Life of Mars set in the 1980s without Sam, Annie, Nelson or Phyllis certainly lost a few points. Life of Mars set in the 1980s without Sam, Annie, Nelson or Phyllis but KEEPING Ray... Matthew Graham, are you TRYING to make me jump off a building like Sam himself?
It is a rule universally acknowledged that pilots are the worst episodes to start watching a show. Yet, there is no other way. First episodes suck, and are often completely different from anything else in the show you'll want to watch for, since they are compromised by having a deliberately pisspoor plot so as not to detract from establishing the characters. Unless you're Steven Moffat, choke this truth down and move on.
Ashes to Ashes, parte the first, it has to be said, would not have got me excited about parte the first. Like Torchwood at its worst, it doesn't seem to know what it wants to be. The episode is basically a line-by-line rewrite of the very first episode, so new folk can tune it, but the whole plot and indeed series rests on you having watched the last episode of Life on Mars and at least partially understanding it. Anyone knowing enough about the show to get all the references will find it tediously predictable at times - me and my parents anyway - and all the 'new stuff' just rubs in how much of the 'old stuff' was a lot better. At least in comparison to this opening episode, anyway.
Rather than the pleasant suburban streets of Manchester, now we're in Central London. Nelson the philisophical cod-Cockney barman is replaced by Luigi the downtrodden restaurant-hostel owner - he doesn't get any decent scenes beyond establishing that he hates his life and everyone in it, particularly the main characters. Annie is replaced by Shazza - a young, cute, endearingly vulnerable teenager with a haircut stolen from Dodo Chaplette who, the story seems to imply, is gay. She might blossom in later episodes, but her personality seems to consist of breathlessly starting every sentence with 'Yeah, right' and hanging around Chris. Phyllis is replaced by some black guy, who could possibly be the same guy from Series Two who was Sam's mentor. I honestly don't know and dare not check for fear of spoilers.
Sam himself is replaced by Alex Drake. And, well, this week at least, it didn't work.
Alex is a woman, a psychologist from the heady future of 2003. It turns out that, just like Sam, not only does she have dark secrets in her past that only a trip back to 1981 could uncover, she also happens to be "written" into the history as a transfer to main police station at her own request, and also has her own Jungian archetypes following her around and being creepy. Well, I say "creepy". Sight gags in Spaced were far more terrifying than anything in this week's installment. The Creepy Little Girl from the Test Card is replaced by a clown, like Joey from The Celestial Toymaker played by Mark Heap.
He has to be THE least-threatening-and-or-scary clown ever.
I have a stuffed toy beanbag clown in my dining room that fills me with more avatistic horror than this guy. Maybe because, you know, he's not smiling or being creepy polite like the Little Girl, but looking pissed off. He doesn't have any smiles or false expression painted on his face. He just looks pissed off. When he suddenly appears stalking Alex when she alone creeps around a deserted warehouse, I was more amused than intimidated. He then had to suddenly 'notice' Alex, talk in the voice of her estranged daughter, then race after Alex roaring and waving his arms before Suddenly Vanishing When You Look Away. Did Creepy Little Girl have to do that? She just stood in the corner and offered friendly advice. This guy might as well have a T-shirt saying FEAR ME! because nothing else is going to help. When Zippy and George make a cameo (played by Roy Skelton, would you believe, reprising his voice role from Rainbow - this is a genuine crossover!), well, these two muppets pretending to be policemen were scarier.
In fact, Life on Mars was scarier full stop. The trouble is, we KNOW what the rules are now. We don't QUITE understand it, but Gene Hunt World can only be accessed when someone is caught between the worlds of life and death, and only then by someone who wants to go. So, when Alex finds herself dumped in 1981, I have little sympathy for her. In fact, impatiently waiting for her to notice her clothing, hair, and surroundings have changed and the place is now bedecked with Adam & The Ants posters annoys me as well. Worse, she's a psychologist who is looking over Sam's memoirs of living in the 70s (narrated by him in the last episode), so she goes "Oh, this is a dream" and starts picking up random ringing phones and talking to televisions, trying to get the rules of this 'fantasy'. Yes, it's what a level-headed woman would do in that situation, but it's hardly thrilling TV when the main character is telling us NO ONE else in the whole wide world is real.
Why, then, should we bother to watch it?
It isn't for the return of Chris and Ray. Despite being seven years older and working with Sam all that time, Ray is absolutely identical to when we last saw him. In fact, he's even more stupid and misogynistic as before. You would have thought he'd be able to bite back to comments after seven years of Tyler and Cartright on his tale. He comes across as odious comic relief, the most stupid character since Tony Robinson got dirty and started telling people he had cunning plans. No, wait, Ray isn't QUITE the stupidist, as Chris manages that.
I expected Chris to change. Seven years on the job, with Gene and Sam mentoring him. Well, he's changed but not much. He's still nervous, prone to putting his foot in his mouth, uncomfortable around non-possibly-gay women, and is as lewd and uncouth as Ray. His stupidity is almost as horrific as him bragging about stealing evidence to keep as souveniers. In front of the bloke who unwillingly provided said evidence. But worst of all was when he leads a bunch of his co-workers in a chorus of Shutuppa Ya Face to annoy Luigi and makes endless racist comments and jokes, seemingly just to wind up Luigi. He's also quick to pass off any responsibility for wrongdoing on his part, blaming Alice for various catastrophes as she's in charge though, when he DOES try to make amends, he's so damn reckless and stupid you wonder if maybe CHRIS is the one with the brain damage and not Alice.
Finally, the Gene Genie. Well. What can I say? You think Phil Glenister would turn in a bad performance? GET OUT OF MY BLOG, SAH! But the core of the character is shifted. Gene worked because, just as he was a good cop continually presented with taking the easy way of corruption, he was also possibly Sam's best friend and also the evil bastard trapping him in the past. Now we know he's a good bloke and innocent of such machievllian stuff, so with that element of mystery gone, we're left with the demeaning sight of Gene having to field phone calls from his supers and defend his decisions. The Gene Genie lacks his exhuberance, as he clearly sees on the horizon the rise of corruption and self interest both inside and outside of the police force, and his quiet hurt as he observes that, in the 1980s, no one trusted the cops and no one liked them. His vow to keep fighting to keep innocents safe until his inevitable chopping is nice, as is the hints he is devastated by Sam's departure, but still...
We're left with a story set in a period of history I don't like. With a bunch of characters who don't want to be there. Who don't like each other much. Or themselves. Worse, the 1980s are so close to the present, the frustration Sam had being stuck on the cusp of so many technological advances and reforms is lost. When Chris shows Alex the Tomorrow's World room of advanced equipment, it's hard to be disappointed: surveillance videos, tape recorders, the lot. Where Sam bemoaned the lack of computers, Alex is left complaining how inefficient the harddrive is. It's symptomatic of the whole episode, trying to impress with an old gag that's less than it was before. Imagine Monty Python's Dead Parrot sketch retold except it's not a parrot, it's a goldfish and it turns out to be alive.
There are, however, some good aspects. The music, for example, is closer to the fore in this series, and I could only cheer as I Fought The Law and the Law Won and No More Heroes rang out as the Gene Genie... actually, he calls himself the A Team now... swept in to save the day in his cowboy boots and black-outfit-white-tie Mike Thecoolperson look. The credits done in the style of 1981 DOS was a nice joke, and there are plenty of witty lines from DCI Hunt. He still manages to come out of the series as the best thing in it after half an hour of being defined as a pointless hallucination of no import whatsoever. Certainly, the series should be sold on him rather than Keely Hawes' Alex who, for some reason, cannot cope with the business as entertainingly or as competently as Sam did, with everyone reasonably assuming she's nuts, on drugs or both. When Sam lost it and panicked it was serious. When Alex loses it and panics, it's just embarrassing. And unlike Sam, there's not much she's missing - after all, which is more serious: attending your daughter's birthday party, or helping the police save your girlfriend from a serial killer? She doesn't have as much to lose staying in the 1980s, but I have to admit sighing when she WASN'T returned to the present on her first try.
Next week - while Peter Davison and Janet Fielding are busy visiting Deva Loka, and Charles and Di are getting married, Gene has to stop some terrorist assassins. Cue naked pool tournaments, Alex dressing up as a prostitute AGAIN and the classic sight of obedient dogs fetching burning sticks of dynamite...
I'm sure the rest of the series will improve... assuming I live long enough to download and watch it. But this first episode falls into the Torchwood trap of mindlessly copying something and totally missing what made it work in the first place. It expects us to be impressed with asking questions everyone already knows the answers to.